In talks with Southeast Asian leaders, top UN officials stress need to protect migrants stranded at sea

People risking sea journeys across the Bay of Bengal often set sail at night. Photo: UNHCR/S. Alam

New york, 17 May 2015 – Increasingly concerned about the plight of migrants and refugees stranded in the Andaman Sea and Straits of Malacca, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson have spoken separately to leaders in Southeast Asia reiterating the need to protect lives and uphold the obligation of rescue at sea.

A statement issued today in New York by a UN spokesperson said that in recent days, the Secretary-General has spoken to the Prime Ministers of Malaysia, Dato’ Sri Mohd Najib bin Tun Haji Abdul Razak, and Thailand, Prayuth Chan-ocha. The Deputy Secretary-General has also spoken to the Foreign Minister of Bangladesh, Abul Hasan Mahmood Ali, and the Deputy-Minister for Multilateral Affairs of Indonesia, Hasan Kleib.

“In their discussions with leaders in the region, they reiterated the need to protect lives and uphold international law. Furthermore, they stressed the need for the timely disembarkation of migrants. They also urged leaders to uphold the obligation of rescue at sea and maintain the prohibition on refoulement,” the statement said. Refoulement is the forcible return of individuals to their country of origin where they could face persecution.

It went on to say the Secretary-General and Deputy Secretary-General also encouraged leaders to participate in the upcoming regional meeting in Bangkok on the migrant situation.

“They hope that the meeting will lead to comprehensive outcomes at the regional and international levels,” said the statement, underscoring that the United Nations stands ready to assist all efforts to address the situation, including at the proposed meeting.

The statement by the top two UN officials comes in the wake of a strong call issued this past Friday by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, who urged governments in Southeast Asia to take swift action to protect the lives of migrants stranded in precarious maritime conditions and warned against the policy of pushing boats back out to sea.

“I am appalled at reports that Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia have been pushing boats full of vulnerable migrants back out to sea, which will inevitably lead to many avoidable deaths,” the UN rights chief said. “The focus should be on saving lives, not further endangering them.”

While Mr. Zeid praised Indonesia for disembarking 582 migrants on 10 May, and Malaysia for disembarking 1,018 the following day, he said the “incomprehensible and inhumane” policy of “pushbacks” was endangering lives. He also spoke against countries’ plans to criminalize vulnerable migrants and asylum seekers who have crossed borders irregularly.

“Governments in South-East Asia need to respond to this crisis from the premise that migrants, regardless of their legal status, how they arrive at borders, or where they come from, are people with rights that must be upheld,” he said. “Criminalizing such vulnerable people, including children, and placing them in detention is not the solution.”

Around 6,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants are believed to remain stranded at sea in precarious conditions in the region and the High Commissioner said the individual circumstances of all migrants and asylum seekers at international borders should be assessed, and appropriate protection provided according to international human rights and refugee law, including ensuring that the principle of non-refoulement is upheld.

He called for further action against traffickers and abusive smugglers and welcomed the announcement that Thailand would host a regional meeting on irregular migration in the Indian Ocean on 29 May. In discussions on comprehensive responses, the regional meeting would seek to address root causes, one of which, he said, was the importance of addressing the serious human rights situation in Rakhine state, in Myanmar.